Logistics and Distribution

Originally published at: https://participatoryeconomy.org/logistics-and-distribution/

Logistics is the distribution of goods and services across space and over time, how something is moved from one place to another and in what order. This far, there have been no substantive proposals made about logistics in a participatory economy.  For a number of reasons, it makes sense to organise and fund logistical systems…

I think that under a participatory economy, there would be an almost-inherent tension between desires to increase ‘efficiency’ through such national and international trade and shipping networks on the one hand, and ecological aspirations on the other hand.

Something in the planning process must also take into account the ecological costs of long distance ‘transport’ versus the costs and benefits of duplicating production of goods and services locally. Under capitalism, it makes sense for Amazon (or even a small leftwing bookstore) to ship a book order half way across the planet to a customer (who has in turn agreed to pay the shipping costs). But in a participatory economy, in my view, that would be a symptom of failure.

I think there are some distinctions that need to be made between the types of things being transported: between items that spoil and require refrigeration (especially food and medicine, but not exclusively) and those that do not spoil; between items that are non-renewable and scarce and those that are renewable and/or plentiful; and between items that cannot be produced everywhere on the planet (for example, crops that require a certain climate, or resources that are only found in certain biomes or countries), and those that CAN be produced everywhere (or close to everywhere).

A participatory economy would need to account for such differences, and would presumably (all other things being equal) want to grow certain kinds of industries locally – not just because there is an ecological incentive to minimize transport methods that may have less-than-sustainable fuel/energy costs associated with them, but also perhaps just because there is a demand for diverse kinds of work in our balanced job complexes. Are there costs to duplicating production of certain goods locally, when they could be shipped from afar? There might be some, especially if there are efficiency gains from the scale of production itself, or if the natural resource inputs required are simply not found in that region. I am not arguing here that everyone ought to be doing everything. But speaking to that tension between an ‘efficient’ national or international trade and transport network and the ecological costs of using it when local production options might be explored – is still likely to be an important argument that workers would need to be constantly engaged in under a participatory economy.

Large cities or “central” economic hubs subsidizing smaller or more remote areas (without the same transport infrastructure) is also an interesting question. Under capitalism, for example, a number of bus charter lines in Canada closed many of their routes to remote locations, particularly in the less populated north – which has left a great number of small towns and Indigenous communities without public transport. This has, in turn, limited parcel deliveries (which used to come with the buses) and limited people’s access to hospitals and so on. Presumably people in a democratic and fair economy would want to make different choices, but there are still costs associated with transport to remote areas. Right now the costs of road and rail infrastructure are typically borne by public coffers, while the benefits primarily accrue to resource-extraction corporations (mining, timber, hydro, etc.). In a just economy, however, presumably the local population would be actually in a position to reap the benefits of that resource-extraction in a way that genuinely helps their own locally- and worker-directed work options, economy, and infrastructure development. That doesn’t automatically eliminate the transportation costs to get goods in and out of remote areas. But it gets you part of the way. Presumably if workers in a participatory economy want or need some of those remote resources then their annual plan ought to include an infrastructure development and maintenance fund specifically designed to help improve remote communities’ access. Some of that funding could be based on a “needs” assessment (helping a more disadvantaged community), but some of it presumably would be based on a mutual benefit assessment too (because that infrastructure also helps the more established, or well-off workers in the economy too – who might now gain access to hitherto scarce resources, or even to natural environments or wilderness destinations that are valued in their own right).

Anyway, interesting post. Just wanted to run with some thoughts that it spurred.

Just quickly want to add that the fact that costs for harmful pollution are borne by the producers, including producers of transportation services, at least is helpful in providing true social costs for shipping.

Absolutely, and maybe those true social costs would, in and of themselves, lead to communities and workplaces investing in local production of certain crops, goods, etc. – where possible – to avoid having to pay those true social (ecological) costs. I am curious if others think that the true social costs being reflected in prices for long-distance shipping would create an incentive for local production and diversification, with or without losses in efficiency.